Good School, Good Neighbors, Bad School, Bad Neighbors?

Montgomery County Public School, Chevy Chase
For many home buyers, schools are very important when it comes to choosing a neighborhood

Earlier this week, my first contribution to Where We Live, the Washington Post’s new buzzing real estate blog, dealt with a stormy issue: neighborhood involvement in the site selection process for the planned Middle School #2 in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster. Some of the comments posted by readers there reminded me of the thin ice realtors often have to walk on when it comes to the school question.

How much advice can your real estate agent give you when it comes to choosing the school district in which you should buy?

Ideally, none. At least that’s what fair housing laws would require. Realtors must not steer you to, or away from, certain school districts or clusters. Clearly, that’s an acknowledgement of the strong relationship between the quality of the public schools and the house prices in a neighborhood. (Certain attractive, pricey urban areas might be exceptions to this rule, but that’s a whole different issue.)

The theory here is that we should not push the wealthier clients towards the already better schools and the lower-income buyers or renters toward areas with weaker schools. There’s a good reason for that: agents shouldn’t unwittingly promote further inequity. This is even more complicated by the fact that the weaker schools in a district often have a higher percentage of “classes” protected by federal and local fair housing legislation such as minorities, kids from single-parent families, or recipients of government assistance.

Many of our buyer clients, however, are surprised and sometimes even outraged when they ask where the “good schools” are and we tell them that we can’t tell them. Especially when they’re new to the area, buyers actually expect this kind of advice from us.

Usually, I will suggest that they talk to friends or colleagues. I will point them towards  official as well as independent websites to get scores, demographics, boundary maps and parent reviews for a number of schools in neighborhoods where the homes fit their other criteria (such as size and prize).

And whether we like it or not, the other criteria often sort of take care of the question. At a minimum, they will limit the options of those concerned with schools. Sometimes it might come down to the choice between a small house tied to a home school with great overall scores and high parental involvement and a big house within the boundaries of a weaker school.

And thank goodness, that’s not a choice your realtor has to make.

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